Is cultural heritage a priority?

Pakistan needs huge financial resources and efficient governance to protect and promote rich cultural heritage -- to turn them into engines of economic growth

Is cultural heritage a priority?

Can cultural heritage contribute to national development? Can it become part of the mainstream economy? Many developed and developing countries have indeed proved culture as a pillar of economic growth.

These nations have not only invested on culture as a vital element of human development and social cohesion but also as a means to achieve economic growth. The Great Wall of China is not simply a symbol of national identity, it also attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists bringing in huge revenues for the country. The Great Wall attracts investment by the government and local people to sell a wide range of products -- from hotels, food, music, fireworks and mementos to Chinese language courses.

A 2010 survey by TERA Consultants shows that in the European Union, the cultural and creative sectors share an estimated 4.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employ around 8.5 million people. Even the sparsely populated Iceland with a total population of 329,000 people has 5.9 per cent of its GDP coming from culture and tourism.

In contrast, our planners in Pakistan still consider culture a non-economic activity. They look at public financing of culture and heritage as a useless expense. This was reflected in last year’s federal budget and Public Sector Development Plan (PSDP). Both the budget and PSDP noticeably fell short of visualising any national level project to protect and promote Pakistan’s cultural heritage.

Even the prime minister’s special programmes have, so far, ignored any national programme that can help turn our heritage as the vehicle for economic development. There can be multiple options. For instance, a special initiative or a prime minister’s programme can be commissioned to protect and promote Pakistan’s six world heritage sites as our models to demonstrate culture as a key element of economic development. Despite the commendable work undertaken by the Department of Archaeology and Museums to preserve these precious sites, many of them are extremely vulnerable.

Our planners in Pakistan still consider culture a non-economic activity. They look at public financing of culture and heritage as a useless expense. This was reflected in last year’s federal budget.

There is some good news too. Following the Eighteenth Amendment, the provinces seem to have gradually recognised the economic value of cultural heritage in their respective domains. Punjab, Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa manifested this by allocating funds for protection of heritage sites for visitors. These three provinces have clearly come to the realisation that their precious heritage can contribute a great deal to social and economic development.

In Punjab, the three government departments responsible for protection and promotion of cultural heritage are: Information and Culture; Tourism; and Archaeology Department. A closer look at last year’s annual development plan shows that these three departments work towards a shared vision: preservation and promotion of cultural heritage of Punjab and employment generation by attracting tourists to the restored heritage and tourist sites.

Last year, the Punjab government earmarked Rs990 million for tourism development; Rs607 million for projects under the Information and Culture Department; and Rs380 million for ongoing and new heritage preservation projects by the Archaeology Department. One striking feature of the Punjab’s tourism development plan is that alongside the major tourist and pilgrimage sites, the plan also has a focus on hitherto neglected heritage sites in Rajanpur, Khushab, Kallar Kahar, Khar and Fort Monroe.

The projects approved under the Information and Culture Department are mostly related to renovation and construction of arts and cultural centres especially in smaller districts of the province. If managed properly, these projects can contribute enormously towards the promotion of language, art and culture of Punjab.

The budget for the Punjab Archaeology Department has three major priorities. The first is conservation and restoration of key archaeological sites in Multan, Khanewal, Vehari, Lahore, Sialkot, Sheikhupura, Jhelum, Wazirabad and Taxila. The second priority is the up-gradation and establishment of museums in Lahore and Gujrat. The third component of the Punjab’s heritage protection strategy is the development of master plans for restoration and preservation of Shalimar Gardens and the famous forts including Lahore Fort, Rohtas Fort and Fort Monroe.

Punjab has definitely come to recognising the economic value of its cultural heritage and paving the way for getting the dividends of investing in culture. However, the success of all these initiatives depends upon the capacity and effectiveness of the existing governance and management structure of the institutions responsible for culture and heritage protection.

Sindh’s current PSDP is far more ambitious than any other province in terms of heritage protection. The plan envisages creation of cultural centres, libraries, new museums, cultural research institutes, music academy, Buddha institute, and restoration of numerous heritage sites in Karachi, Hyderabad, Thatta, Pir Jo Goth, Hala, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, and Chatori. The PSDP also has allocations approved for excavation and documentation of archaeological sites and monuments in Thatta, Badin, Mirpurkhas, Tando Muhammad Khan, Tharparkar, Tando Aallah Yar, Sanghar, Umerkot and Sukkur. In last year’s budget the World Heritage Sites in Mohen-Jo Daro and Makli Hills were also allocated funds for protection.

It is heartening to see that the post-devolution Sindh is gradually taking charge of the management of its cultural heritage. However, the province also needs a highly effective management structure to implement its existing and new heritage protection plans.

In 2014, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government approved a five-year Integrated Development Strategy (IDS), which not only prioritises the government’s development agenda but also contains budget estimates for projects proposed during 2014-18. The IDS document informs that KP caters to 19 per cent of the total national domestic tourist traffic to destinations in the province. The total economic value of domestic tourism in KP is estimated at Rs12 billion per annum.

Even with militancy and security issues confronting KP, domestic tourism in the province shows an upward trend. The IDS aptly focuses on increasing the domestic tourism to KP by 10 per cent every year. To that end, the KP Tourism, Sports and Youth Development Department has been tasked to protect archaeological sites to attract more tourists; and to improve hotel and other accommodation facilities for visitors.

Last year, an allocation of Rs100 million was earmarked for the conservation and preservation of archaeological sites in the province. Like other provinces, KP also needs to revamp the governance structure to implement projects related to heritage protection and tourism development.

In the budget last year, the Balochistan government allocated Rs27.9 million for ongoing and new projects related to heritage protection. However, the details regarding the number of heritage protection projects were not publicly available to ascertain the government’s priority areas in this sector.

There is no denying the fact that Pakistan needs huge financial resources, organisational capacity and highly efficient governance structures to protect and promote the rich cultural heritage and to make the culture sector a pillar of its economic growth. Nevertheless, credit goes to Punjab, Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for making genuine efforts to protect our precious cultural heritage not only as a vital element of our identity as a nation but also for envisioning the projects that can realise the economic potential of cultural heritage.

Such enterprises, when consistent, can definitely turn our heritage as the vehicle for social and economic development. Our cultural heritage has the potential to become a leading sector to generate growth of economy, contributing to Pakistan’s progress.

Is cultural heritage a priority?